D&D General Does the killer DM exist?


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jgsugden

Legend
Killer DM, yes. BBEDM, rare.

I have played with a lot of DMs that fall into two fallacies that tend towards TPKs.

The first is one that gets frustrated that the PCs are not challenged. As a response, they keep on edging up the challenges until the PCs start dropping and every encounter is a deadly. Eventually, the dice go bad, someone makes a mistake, etc... and you get a TPK.

The second is the DM that is inexperienced and just puts things that are too hard into the game. For example, I joined a game store game one night and that DM threw a beholder at us - at first level. After a two round TPK, the DM said, "Wow, I thought you'd run when you saw it." The beholder got a surprise round and was between us and the only exit we saw. There was only one PC that had any chance to flee - and they were offed in the surprise round.

There are also a small number of DMs that like to prove how smart they are by setting up 'tricks' that you need to figure out to survive, and then they withhold the clues necessary to figure it out. They put a giant sphere of annihilation inside a darkness globe that you can't dispel. They have incredibly well hidden pit traps int he center of a corridor that drop into lava, and then drop a boulder on top of you when you hit the lava. They have 10 'apprentices' in combats that are there primarily to counterspell everything you cast. Etc... These do exist, they're primarily situations where a person that has difficulty with social interaction is running a game, and they're usually opportunities for the DM to show how tricky and smart they are. When I find these DMs, I offer feedback, and then don't play with them again as a DM.
 

Mannahnin

Scion of Murgen (He/Him)
There were a pair of really bad GMs that I remember who were a guy with a steady factory job and a mostly-unemployed guy that lived with him. They didn't outright kill that many characters, but would hit people with weird attacks and situations ranging from 'questionable' to 'violent rape'. They kept some players coming around because they wouldn't do this to quite everyone (so they'd have a couple of occasional players who talked about fun games), they had a few players with significant issues who stayed around, sometimes they'd let someone live at their place, and they would attract high schoolers because some dudes with their own place and multiple TTRPG and video game options seems really amazing at that age. (As an adult I've run games for kids, but there's a vast difference between spending a few hours running a game in a game store and having high school kids as the center of your social life).

These two were definitely awful GMs but were also just awful people in a general sense.
Oh, this rings a vague bell from my own teenage years. The couple of dudes in question didn't seem AWFUL, but they were definitely sketchy, and fond of incorporating unnecessary adult content. I played with them a couple of times and borrowed a few comic books, but didn't bother going back after realizing that they game and they just weren't that cool.
 

TheDelphian

Explorer
Met them and played with them (Never for long) but yes they do exist just more of a rarity now then in the olden days.

It happened seems to be mostly cured cause people have other options now. Also those passing on the game are better GM's over all I think just a matter of experience and maturing of the game over time.
 

Yes, I've played with a few. Some way back in the day, when we were younger and didn't know better. Some recently - at an Origins D&D Epic, no less, though admittedly he was someone that got recruited at the last minute when they were short.

And if I'm being honest, when I was much younger, if you got on my bad side, I could be a really nasty DM. I once threw a level-draining wraith, followed by a troll, followed by a pit trap, ending with an ambush by a blue dragon, at one PC. If you were playing a paladin and got me mad, your character would live, but invariably level-drained, stripped of their paladinhood, with your armor and several magic items gone, all from adventures designed to do just that. Because I knew it was far worse to destroy your character concept than just the character.

Granted, it took a lot for me to enact those sort of scorched character protocols. You had to really push me to get to that point. And because I was the only DM most of these folks knew, they were still stuck gaming with me even after all that (of course, I was also stuck with them as players!). I was still generally a softy to everyone but the one player that had gone too far (and even then, after they'd gotten the business, my anger spent, they'd be in pretty much the same boat as the rest of the table). I like to think I've grown up since then.
 

I played under an ST in an ongoing LARP who was proudly adversarial towards the players and made it his mission to defeat and thwart us. Got tired real fast.
 


Charlaquin

Goblin Queen (She/Her/Hers)
They do exist, but I think most of them are just inexperienced DMs who will grow out of it. I think many stories of killer DMs also come from a mismatch of expectations - DM is running a meat-grinder and the players are expecting something lower-lethality, and for various reasons these things were never communicated.
 

CleverNickName

Limit Break Dancing
We hear about the BBEDM all the time. The one that enjoys torturing players, killing their characters, abused DM fiat, with inconsistent rulings and other shenanigans. Does he even exist? To me he is a legend. Never met him. Never played with him.
It's been years since I've seen one of these DMs in real life. I think it was the early 1990s, and I was in high school, and he was in the mirror.

It wasn't that I was a "big bad evil dungeon master," I was just an inexperienced and impatient kid with poor social skills. But in the years since, I've learned a great deal about D&D, and playing games, and making friends.
 

We hear about the BBEDM all the time. The one that enjoys torturing players, killing their characters, abused DM fiat, with inconsistent rulings and other shenanigans. Does he even exist? To me he is a legend. Never met him. Never played with him. I only played with inexperienced DMs that got better with time. Or those who stopped DMing because they weren't any good at it.

Have you actually played with (against) an unrepentant BBEDM?
Have I played with them myself? Sort of depends on how strict you're gonna make the barrier to entry. If it has to be outright actual malice, with some optional but highly encouraged steepled fingers and maniacal laughter, then no, I have not. If we're allowed to have someone who should have known better, but adamantly insisted that their way would be just fine and then, when everything went (expectedly) pear-shaped in short order, really really reluctant to actually address those problems or admit fault, then yes, I have.

Has anyone experienced this? Yes, absolutely. I have friends who have endured some really, really bad DMing things, up to and including treating female-bodied characters (played by female-bodied players) as a party commodity and openly discussing whether or not the character would get pregnant by one of the male characters at some point during the adventure. Like, really legitimately icky stuff that has absolutely 0% to do with DM skill or experience, and everything to do with failing to value the players as people.

So, does the killer DM exist? Yes. I have been fairly fortunate to avoid them, in part because my preferences (things like dragonborn, for example) tend to act as a halfway-decent filter. It doesn't, at all, guarantee that a DM will be good, nor does it guarantee that I won't miss a good DM. But it does a fairly good job of filtering out things that definitely wouldn't be good. I've taken a hard pass on a lot of DMs over the years because I got "killer DM" vibes from them.
 


Oofta

Legend
Have I played with them myself? Sort of depends on how strict you're gonna make the barrier to entry. If it has to be outright actual malice, with some optional but highly encouraged steepled fingers and maniacal laughter, then no, I have not. If we're allowed to have someone who should have known better, but adamantly insisted that their way would be just fine and then, when everything went (expectedly) pear-shaped in short order, really really reluctant to actually address those problems or admit fault, then yes, I have.

Has anyone experienced this? Yes, absolutely. I have friends who have endured some really, really bad DMing things, up to and including treating female-bodied characters (played by female-bodied players) as a party commodity and openly discussing whether or not the character would get pregnant by one of the male characters at some point during the adventure. Like, really legitimately icky stuff that has absolutely 0% to do with DM skill or experience, and everything to do with failing to value the players as people.

So, does the killer DM exist? Yes. I have been fairly fortunate to avoid them, in part because my preferences (things like dragonborn, for example) tend to act as a halfway-decent filter. It doesn't, at all, guarantee that a DM will be good, nor does it guarantee that I won't miss a good DM. But it does a fairly good job of filtering out things that definitely wouldn't be good. I've taken a hard pass on a lot of DMs over the years because I got "killer DM" vibes from them.

Back in 3.5 days of Living Greyhawk, LG had different regions. Different regions has different leadership volunteers that would create things for their region (I was in AZ at the time so our region was Nyrond). So one of the things people would do would be to travel to different regions to play mods since you couldn't play a mod more than once.

One of the neighboring kingdoms was the Bandit Kingdoms. We went to a con there and ... it was awful. Basically there was a dragon running around and if you were playing a female PC there was a percentage chance that the dragon would kidnap the PC and impregnate them. Well, that and they'd throw monsters in that had unholy word (?) that was high enough level that if you were good aligned PC you were automatically stunned.

After that one con, we profusely thanked the people running our region and never went back.
 
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Steampunkette

Rules Tinkerer and Freelance Writer
Supporter
So... The answer is a resounding Yes. And I'm even willing to play the Evil Killer DM when my players want that kind of experience.

Not to the point of "The death trap fires and you die, no save" or anything similar. But I have run adventures where combat is, at best, inadvisable. Where traps are deadly, and where NPCs are by and large Hostile by nature. Most of these have been one-shots that were designed from the start to be silly over the top ridiculous "How far can we push this kind of thing" games typically played in Hackmaster.

But I did one 3.5e "Evil Killer DM" game where the whole thing was Spies and Espionage type stuff with an entire party of Sneakypeeps. Not all Rogues, mind you, but everyone was Rogue-ish in nature. And the entire thing was designed to fulfill this "Heist Fantasy" the party had that was very "Metal Gear Solid" at the time. They wanted to be sneaky and to have a -need- for stealth in the story, so the enemies were powerful and they had to be clever and pull out a lot of old tropes to get past various guards, doors, traps, etc.

In the end they went all "Rogue One". They managed to assassinate the BBEG but basically didn't make it out alive, with each character slowly succumbing to the powerful guards bringing down the Kingslayers. One character got captured rather than killed and had a whole execution scene where she got to spout off a Revolutionary Creed to the audience before her hanging and it was pretty well received by the table.

But actual Killer DMs who do it all the time? Yeah. They're out there.
 

Dessert Nomad

Adventurer
Oh, this rings a vague bell from my own teenage years. The couple of dudes in question didn't seem AWFUL, but they were definitely sketchy, and fond of incorporating unnecessary adult content. I played with them a couple of times and borrowed a few comic books, but didn't bother going back after realizing that they game and they just weren't that cool.

Yeah, I'm sure there are a decent number of 'dudes who primarily hang around with high schoolers because they aren't that cool but having your own apartment seems super-cool to high schoolers' that are just lame but not AWFUL. These guys were awful though - there was a ton of questionable stuff in games that I'm sure this board doesn't want me to post (and I don't remember much of it anymore anyway). In the funnier stuff, I remember once the two of them got in an argument about cleaning the kitchen and both refused to do it until they had the pantry closet entirely full of trash and the kitchen sink piled with every dish they had, with rotting raw hamburger buried in there somewhere. They finally cleaned it when no one would come over anymore because of the smell escaped to the living room.
 


No one is perfect at this, so these people make mistakes but on this subject?
Exactly how far is too far?
A good question, hence my above response. If we make the line of "too far" something that's really, really stringent, then almost no one will clear it...but that's because we made it that way. If we make it really loose, then plenty of people will clear it for the same reason. Where do we draw the line between "ordinary DM who has human foibles while trying to present a dangerous challenge for characters to overcome" and "bad DM who abuses their power and inflicts needless/senseless punishments on characters"?

Considering how many threads we've had crying about how hard it is to kill 5e characters and 'solving problems' by increasing lethality...
Yeah, this thought definitely crossed my mind too. The "DM Empowerment" crowd has plenty of totally fine people in it, but there's definitely some...questionable undertones in a lot of their concepts that are very...welcoming, shall we say, to the "Killer DM" type as described in the OP.

I also think a lot of people like to call games that are anything but highly carebear games a horror show run by killer DMs.
My experience has absolutely not been this--and I'm one of those very people who thinks death should be a "sometimes food."

I've run into just about every other kind of naughty word DM I've ever heard of, but I don't have any personal experience with the "killer" type.

I've killed a few player characters in the past thirty years, but less than my fair share for someone who cut his teeth on AD&D. I pride myself on my brutality as a DM, but that's much more about using the PCs' ideals and relationships to twist them up; if I let the PC die, I'm giving up the ability to keep hurting them.
Wouldn't phrase it that way myself, but definitely this idea. If death is final, it gives at least a little closure, since there's nothing the dead can do about the future. And if it isn't final, then it was basically just a mandatory all-expenses paid vacation (of your mortal coil), making it fit squarely into the "twist them up" region if that mandatory vacation happened while they wanted (or would have wanted) to do something. It's far more effective to turn the player's own efforts and values...not "against them" per se, but to force difficult moral choices and situations where there is no going back.

Frex: party Bard is a tiefling, mysterious devil ancestor on dad's side, succubus great-grandmother on mom's side. He hates the BS of both devils and demons, but has willingly taken on power-ups from both sides, not for himself, but to help others. (One, saving a group of "made" tieflings from their devilish bond; the other, enabling succubus great-grandma to become properly mortal, and thus eventually die and, according to their religion, reunite with her dead husband in the afterlife.) Player AGONIZED over these decisions, and while the perks have been real, both player and character still wonder sometimes if they made the right decisions. That's the good stuff--the twisting that lingers ages and ages after the deed was done.

After that one con, we profusely thanked the people running our region and never when back.
Jeez, yeah, I can definitely understand that. Feel bad for the folks who had no alternative!

I always think the real question is if players actually keep showing up to campaigns they hate.
Often one of these reasons:
  1. "Only game in town" effect. Be it truly the only game, or the only game that fits your schedule, or the only game of the system you want, etc.
  2. The person running it is a friend, who outside of being a jerk DM, is a perfectly fine person, so refusing their game has social costs.
  3. Someone else playing in the game doesn't hate it, and this is one of the few ways you get to spend time with them.
  4. Genuinely not realizing how bad it is, or rationalizing having an overall bad time because of the few good moments along the way.
  5. Not knowing what the real problem is. (I long thought if I could tweak 3.X enough, it'd make me happy. It took 4e for me to see the real problems.)
There are probably other reasons, but I think those four capture the majority of it. 3 and 4 are subtly different, but still different. With 3, the person either just doesn't know there's a problem at all, or pretends the problem doesn't matterr. Meanwhile with 4 one recognizes there's something going on, but due to ignorance or inexperience, repeatedly fails to identify the real problem, thus attempting "fixes" that aren't actually what's needed.

Not to make an overwrought analogy, but...why do people keep coming back to abusive partners? You're gonna see a lot of similarities.
 
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I would hope it's different now. But I can say that every player that got on my bad side and got the business I described above, still showed up to play D&D until I finally just stopped inviting them to play. I got sick of dealing with their nonsense before they got sick of dealing with mine. This was in a small town in the 80s and early 90s, and there just weren't that many other opportunities to play D&D.

I always think the real question is if players actually keep showing up to campaigns they hate.
 



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